Tom Dennison, Omaha Political Boss

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Born in Iowa in 1858 of Irish immigrant parents and moving to Nebraska at the age of two, Tom Dennison left home while in his teens and spent the next several years roaming the West, refining his gambling and political skills. He eventually used these skills to become the man who controlled Omaha.

First Years in Omaha

By the early 1890s, Dennison was in Omaha, already known as “a wide open town”, and had established a policy (lottery) shop in the city’s notorious Third Ward. Highly uneducated and quiet by nature, the gambler, nevertheless, had a shrewd and Machiavellian side that he used to consolidate his power. Fellow gambling house owners who refused to toe the line were forced out of business, the “red light district” and other vice operations came under his control, he established contacts in the police department and developed a favorable relationship with the powerful owner of the Omaha Bee, Edward Rosewater.

The Early 1900s

In the early 20th century, the gambler turned to city politics in order to protect his expanding interests. Never an candidate for political office, Dennison’s third ward was the determining factor in many elections. A self-proclaimed Republican, he never let party loyalty stand in his way. In 1906, when the Republicans ran a reform candidate for mayor, Dennison’s political machine backed Democrat James Dahlman for office. Thanks to the gambler, Dahlman won by a large margin and the affable politician would be mayor for most of the next twenty-four years. Although never part of the Dennison organization, he was always ready to look the other way when it came to vice and crime in Omaha.

Dennison Gains Complete Control

By the time of World War I, Omaha’s boss had complete control of the city. His influence reached every ward and he had valuable contacts with many of the town’s most prominent business and civic leaders, as well as a few on the county and state level. His influence in the police department was so great that an African-American officer, Harry Buford, was assigned to be Dennison’s chauffeur and also became the liaison between the machine and the city’s Near North Side black community.

Even setbacks to his organization proved to be minor annoyances. When a progressive movement resulted in an anti-machine slate gaining control of city government in 1918, Dennison supporters, including the Bee, discredited the new officials every chance they could. The climax of these attacks against the new administration came after it was blamed for allowing the Douglas County Courthouse Riot of 1919, when a mob removed and lynched a black man who had been unjustly accused of a crime. In 1920, Dahlman and other machine favorites were elected again to office.

Dennison’s Final Years

During prohibition, Dennison added bootlegging to the list of activities under his complete control. The over 1500 speakeasies in the city and its environs had to be machined approved. For bootleggers who did not want to cooperate, the results could be fatal. At least two who chose to cross Dennison were victims of gangland slayings blamed on the Dennison organization. These crimes and the murder of businessman and civic reformer Harry Lapidus finally aroused the public.

In October 1932, Tom Dennison and fifty-eight associates were tried on federal charges of conspiring to violate the Volstead Act. Although the trial ended in a hung jury, his power was gone and his days as boss were over. In February 1934, he was involved in a car accident while visiting in San Diego and died a short time later. Despite his notoriety, or perhaps because of it, over one thousand people in Omaha attended his funeral.

Dennison biographer Orville Menard in his book, Political Bossism in Mid-America (Pp. 326-27), asks the question, “…for Thomas Dennison were all the battles and struggles, the decisions made to win them, really worth it? He then answers with a quote from Dennison, “One gambles to win, but even if you lose the game is worth the cost.”